With one election officially under way here, another is about to kick off across the Atlantic. Americans are gearing up to select their nominees for President of the United States.

Election Day is on 3 November this year but political parties first have to determine who their candidate is going to be. 

We will find that out during the party conventions this summer however in the meantime, the gruelling process of primaries and caucuses need to happen so voters can have their say on who they want to go head-to-head.

With an array of Democratic hopefuls, but some already giving up the fight, these election systems will be put to the test over the coming months.

Donald Trump accepting the Republican party nomination at their National Convention in 2016

While Republicans too will vote for their choice, some states have cancelled their presidential primaries because they say it is not usual practice when an incumbent is running for re-election. These include Nevada, South Carolina, Alaska, Virginia, Kansas, Hawaii and Arizona.

Both primaries and caucuses serve a similar function but can be mind-boggling in nature. Here's a guide to understanding how the whole thing works.


What is a delegate?

Before we go through the ins-and-outs of a primary and caucus, let's examine the role of a delegate as they play a huge role in the political election system of the United States.

A delegate is a person selected to represent a group’s decision on who they think should run of behalf of their party for president of the United States.

The Democratic Party's efforts to choose their nominee for president will swallow up most of the attention over the next couple of months as they try and find that person.

The Democrats have 4,051 delegates from around the country which are put forward following primaries and caucuses at a state or local level.

The party uses proportional representation to figure out how many delegates each candidate is awarded in a state. That being said, a candidate must win at least 15% of the vote in order to get any delegates.

In comparison, Republicans in different states can choose whether to award delegates proportionate to the popular vote or a winner-takes-all system.

Those delegates then head to the party’s national convention in the summer where they vote for who they would like to be the nominee.

Supporters of Franklin D. Roosevelt at the 1936 Democratic National Convention

To add another layer to the process, there are also just over 714 super-delegates which are commonly members of Congress, former presidents, governors and other senior leaders in the party. They can vote for whoever they want, however they have been criticised for carrying too much weight in the nomination process.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton secured the nomination with her super delegates appeal and Bernie Sanders supporters accused the party of tipping the scales in favour of the former secretary of state.

This year will see some new changes that will try and reduce their influence as they will no longer be able to vote on the first ballot of the convention unless it is unclear about the outcome. That means they'll get a vote on any subsequent round of voting if it is not settled on the first ballot.

Overall, a presidential candidate must win a simple majority of combined delegate votes at the national convention.


What is a caucus?

One of the state's oldest methods to pick delegates is through a caucus.

It is more like a community event than anything else. Registered members of a political party meet in cities, towns and counties across the country in anything from restaurants, city halls, schools gyms and even houses.

A caucus takes place at a particular time in these venues rather than throughout the day when compared to a polling station.

At an agreed time, usually at 7pm, the venue is "closed" and the people who are in the room begin the process to choose their preferred nominee for president and select delegates to go on to the next round of party conventions.

People divide into groups - representing each candidate. For example, those who support Bernie Sanders would stand together and the same for other candidates. Voters who are undecided also form their own set.

Representatives from each candidate then make their case to the crowd about who they should support.

Usually a candidate needs to get 15% of votes to be awarded delegates. However, if a quota for a nominee is not reached, that is when the fun starts.

People can leave a caucus or choose to support another candidate as groups try to pitch and poach them to come over to their side. 

It can be a long haul as people hash it out. It can get personal too with friends and neighbours trying to convince each other to switch.

With a crowded Democratic field this year, caucuses may be lengthy.

Delegates may then go on to county or, like Iowa, go on to state conventions where delegates are whittled down again before they go on to the national stage in the summer.

Republicans don’t have as much theatrics. The party has a secret ballot - mark a candidate preference on a sheet and then these are tallied.


But things have changed...

The present system in the American electoral system is not a century-old tradition and is actually quite new.

Senior party members and insiders used to make the call and select a candidate but there soon came calls for the voices of citizens to be heard.

There have been changes to the systems over the decades but for most of the last half a century, the two main parties have been using a primary process system.

Tides started to change in 1968 when the Democrats met to choose their candidate. 

There was already major division in the party over the Vietnam War and emotions were high following the assassinations that year of Robert F Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

Violence broke out at the DNC when Vice President Hubert Humphrey won the nomination contest even though he didn't enter any primary elections and instead courted officials who controlled the delegates. There were more red faces that year as the Democrats lost out to Richard Nixon.

Hubert H Humphrey winning the nomination at the Democratic National Convention in 1968

Reforms to the nomination system were recommended so the process could be more open to 'rank and file' members of the party. Republicans soon followed suit and the primary process system began to take hold.

It all essentially (and eventually) led to giving more control of the nominating process to a popular vote.

Just over ten years ago, during the 2008 election, 19 states used the caucus system but its popularity has deteriorated over the years.

There are questions over whether it is fair as there can be disproportionate influence. Just look at Iowa and New Hampshire which hold major power in the nomination process however they are predominantly white states.

Many states including Minnesota and Colorado have switched to primaries in the last decade. There are now only six caucus states; Iowa, Nevada, Kansas, North Dakota, Wyoming and Maine.


What is a primary?

A primary is the now most used system to choose a candidate for the presidential election in the United States.

Simply, voters go to schools, libraries etc in different districts and check the box or pull a lever for their preferred candidate.

But primaries come in many forms:

  • A closed primary is only open to people registered to a particular political party.
  • Whereas both registered party members and unaffiliated voters are allowed to vote in a semi-closed primary.
  • Predictably, any registered voter can vote in an open primary.
  • Finally, a semi-open primary allows registered voters but they must be party specific when requesting a ballot.

The US presidential race has many key moments and dates to keep an eye out for. Have a look at our timeline to stay on top of everything in this 2020 election.